MIAMI -- For a moment, it seemed that even a depleted audience of Miami Dolphins fans at Hard Rock Stadium would witness what the entire fan base has coveted for the past month.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa tossed a short touchdown pass to an elated Mack Hollins with a little more than two minutes left as the Dolphins took a 28-27 lead against the Atlanta Falcons, hoping their five-game losing streak would soon be an unpleasant memory. But Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan dropped a 28-yard dime to rookie tight end Kyle Pitts to put the Falcons in range for a field goal by Younghoe Koo, giving Atlanta a 30-28 win.
The roller coaster seems to travel only downward for Miami (1-6).
"It's a slim margin for error. We're on the wrong side of that for a lot of reasons," Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. "We'll continue to talk about it, but at the end of the day, we've got to produce more on the field. I would say we've had some opportunities. We had some today. We didn't take advantage."
Since the NFL introduced a 12-team playoff format in 1990, all 81 teams that have started 1-6 missed the playoffs and none finished with a winning record. Miami general manager Chris Grier and Flores might get another season to turn things around, but at what point does that become a difficult selling point to Dolphins fans?
Both should be desperate to get this season back on track, and Grier could make a polarizing move in order to do so.
Throughout the past week rumors swirled about the Dolphins' interest in Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson with the Nov. 2 trade deadline looming. He is facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, as well as a grand jury investigation into his alleged actions. Flores publicly backed Tagovailoa this week, but the rumors were enough for Flores to have a conversation with Tagovailoa about them during the week.
"I really respect and appreciate [Flores'] transparency," Tagovailoa said Sunday. "He sits me down. He tells me what's going on. He has conversations with Grier and he kind of keeps me in the loop with all of those things ... I hear it, but I'm not really focused on that."
It's not like Miami is in dire need of improved quarterback play; since returning from a three-game stint on injured reserve, Tagovailoa has completed 75% of his passes for 620 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions -- the best two-game stretch of his career. But perhaps a case against Tagovailoa is that despite those performances, the Dolphins still lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) and Falcons (3-3).
It's enough to reasonably question the team's ceiling with Tagovailoa at quarterback, with Flores coaching, with Grier as general manager -- all of it. The Dolphins won 10 games in 2020 -- that's not insignificant -- but something has to change after an inexplicably sharp regression.
"We still have got to take it one game at a time. The season is not over for us," defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah said. "You never know. It's tough. We won a lot of games last year and now we're losing, but we just got to keep the fight on. We can't give up now."
This season isn't just disappointing, though -- it's disastrous.
The Dolphins considered themselves a playoff team entering the season, so much so, they traded their 2022 first-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles to move up to No. 6 overall and draft another weapon for Tagovailoa -- his former college teammate Jaylen Waddle. The rookie has been Miami's most reliable receiver this season, but it hasn't impacted the win column.
Sure, there's an extra game in 2021 and an extra playoff team per conference, but it doesn't matter. With 10 games left, it will be a big challenge for Miami just to avoid its second losing record in three seasons under Flores. Nothing the Dolphins have shown on the field through seven games suggests that achievement is within reach.
The Dolphins' losses sweetening the pick for Philadelphia next spring takes away any silver lining to losing, and their defense, which finished last season's 10-win campaign ranked fifth in scoring, 10th in sacks and first in takeaways now ranks 31st, 22nd and 13th, respectively. An offense that was supposed to be more explosive with the addition of Waddle and receiver William Fuller has yet to play a single snap with Tagovailoa, Fuller, Waddle and receiver DeVante Parker on the field together.
Miami also ranks 30th in rushing yards per game, 25th in passing yards, 29th in scoring and 31st in pass block win rate per NFL Next Gen Stats. Grier has spent four picks in the first three rounds on offensive linemen since Flores' arrival in 2019. That line has given up the ninth-most sacks (17) despite facing the 12th-fewest blitzes.
"The margin for error that we're talking about," Flores said. "Are the things we're doing enough to get us on the right side of that margin? Do we understand those situations? ... We're just not making those plays. We have to find a different way to try to teach that awareness, to try to help them execute better in those situations."
There are signs of life within this Dolphins team. It erased a 13-point deficit to take the lead late in the fourth quarter Sunday and its past two losses have come on field goals as time expired. Tagovailoa has been aggressive despite playing through fractured ribs.
But how much longer can this ride plunge before something drastic has to be done?